#NOTHANX: can shapewear ever be feminist?

Nov 16, 2018 | all, our community | 1 comment

The creators of everyone’s favourite tights, Heist, have just released their limited edition Outer Body, or “shapewear without the struggle, sweat, and squeeze”, and are inviting debate about whether shapewear can ever be considered feminist. They reckon it can be reshaped (pun intended) to be seen as empowering garb. And they’ve also preempted your argument that maybe it just… can’t be. That the entire conception of Spanx and similar shapewear products were originally intended to make women’s bodies conform to what the male gaze wants to see. Is it even remotely possible to make a version of this product (even a really bloody well designed version) and call it feminist to wear it?

Telling women+ they are not enough just the way they are has, since the dawn of capitalism, made big bucks for big companies run by big (read: powerful) blokes with big egos and not enough compassion. This is a pretty much inarguable fact (and if you want to argue it you’re gonna have to @ me on twitter because in this family we accept the basic tenets of modern feminism). And, depressingly, the result of this is the ingrained societal beauty standards that dictate a woman’s perceived value.

But if we’re acknowledging these constructs, the way women+ have been conditioned to need/like/want to look a certain way, then surely getting mad at the existence of them or the people who adhere to them isn’t very helpful. In fact, I’d go a far as to say it’s pretty bloody anti-feminist, because isn’t modern feminism supposed to be about, among other things, giving women+ more choice and not shaming them for it?

If we judge a woman’s so-called feminist credentials on the fabrics – or lack thereof – she chooses to adorn her body with, then isn’t that just patriarchy in sheep’s clothing? Is it not just as controlling and prescriptivist and taking away the illusion of choice that we’ve worked so hard to attain?

This is Heist’s basic premise with their latest garment – which dropped just yesterday – the Outer Body. The Outer Body is a bodysuit designed to be easy to put on and comfortable to wear, applying pressure where the body needs it, not aggressively sucking in your fat where your body decidedly does not need it. It’s designed to mimic the fascia – the sheet of connective tissue beneath the skin that stabilises your internal organs – and it’s designed bloody well, according to the people who’ve been lucky enough to wear it so far and the credentials of the woman who designed it (more on this v. important tidbit later). In short, it’s not, like, regular spanx, it’s cool spanx (please tell me Mean Girls references are still relevant?)

Heist’s entire business model and marketing efforts, as well as the Outer Body press release which dropped through our inbox, are all centred around an attempt to make garments which are fundamentally not feminist, well, feminist.

“Shouldn’t we be trying to change the association around shapewear from shame to empowerment? Let’s not focus on the shapewear but instead of the women who wear it.”

Shapewear, like most every damn thing that’s deemed solely the domain of ‘womenswear’, is controversial. High-heels, red lipstick, and miniskirts also have the thrilling honour of being frequently subject to feminist debate. Anything that serves no real function except to make female-presenting people, ostensibly, more bangable to straight men is infuriatingly often deemed inherently anti-feminist. But, by that reasoning, we may as well throw the baby out with the bathwater and call the entire fashion industry, across the whole gender spectrum, farcical nonsense. Can’t we all just wear beige sacks in summer and thick grey boiler suits in winter? (Actually, sign me up for one of those, dystopian attire is my jam now, since we’re living in a political and environmental hellscape n all.) Fashion (and basically everything else under capitalism) convinces us we’re lacking a Thing and then provides us with the option to purchase said Thing. But it’s only the items that fall close to the ultra-feminine side of the gender binary that are scrutinised in this way. I wonder why that is?

Just kidding, I’m not wondering. It’s because, shocker, patriarchy is still a thing and femininity is still deemed inferior to masculinity, no matter how ‘desirably’ it is performed.

The fact is, these socially conditioned concepts of beauty and the means of achieving them have been shat out into the universe and all the whining we can muster won’t undo that. If you’re pro-women+ and their right to choose to wear and do whatever they want with their own bodies and lives then, sorry boo, you’re pro their right to choose to suck in their tummies and push up their cleavages too.

Heist’s VP Innovator – so, the brains behind the Outer Body – is Olympic medal-winning FASTSKIN (made with sharkskin technology) designer, Fiona Fairhurst. The woman who reinvented swimwear with such success that it helped set thirteen out of fifteen world records at the Sydney Olympic Games 2000. This is shapewear treated with the same respect and deemed worthy of the same technology as athletes’ Olympic suits. When has anything in womenswear – especially in women’s underwear – ever been treated with as much deference?

Sure, body-positive movements are incredible and necessary and maybe one day we’ll live in a utopia in which no one feels the need to alter their bodies/selves to be more attractive/acceptable to other people, but I seriously doubt it. Why? Because a) Western culture is balls deeps in capitalism, which survives off convincing us to aspire to bigger, better, thinner, just plain different things in order to get us to spend spend spend, and b) body modifications, tattoos, and extreme individualism and self-expression through supposedly superficial means (make-up, fashion, cosplay, drag, to name a few) are only becoming more and more popular.

Not to mention that shapewear, regardless of your personal opinion of it, has been an invaluable resource to transfeminine people who want some sartorial assistance in achieving their desired gender presentation. It can be all too easy for people engaging with debates over the feminist credentials of these products (make-up, heels and the like included) to ignore the fact that gender is inherently a performance. If you have the luxury of boycotting certain items because #patriarchy while still being able to present comfortably in your chosen gender, then great, I’m happy for you. But what if these supposedly oppressive products are used as tools to make people feel more like their true selves – to feel freer?

Shapewear is body modification to some degree, yes, but it’s impermanent and, in Heist’s hands, not painful or inhibiting. And besides, nobody’s calling tattoos anti feminist.

If you think this lacks the nuance of the efforts of the body-positivity movement then, well, that’s actually intentional. The body positivity movement is bloody incredible and we’re so thankful it exists for the people it benefits and inspires. But it’s important to remember that what feels like celebration to one person feels like just another cage to another person. Not everyone has the freedom, confidence, or desire to bare their unaltered, natural self, all the time. Not everyone wants to be told they have to hide and morph their bodies into garments that they believe serve the viewer more than they serve them. And guess what? Both are fine. What’s not fine is deciding that feminists are only allowed to occupy one of those spaces.

This whole argument doesn’t really come down to whether or not you think shapewear is empowering or not. It comes down to whether you think another person, with another body and another life and opinions different from yours, has the right to feel empowered wearing it. And if a brand wants to invest in making those garments serve the people who wear them better, who are we to object to that?

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